Mufasa, the Lion King, has just clawed his way up the cliff to escape a stampede of wildebeest, only to be confronted at the top by his jealous and murderous brother, Scar, who throws him to his death in the gorge below. It is the tragic turning point in the film, leaving Simba, Mufasa’s little lion cub, bereft. “Whoopsie!” my four-year-old shouts from the sofa, as if someone has dropped a handkerchief on the floor.
My daughter, like most children her age, loves animated films – mainly Disney’s Tangled and, inevitably, Frozen. But according to a study published in the British Medical Journal this week, I should fear exposing her to cartoons because, say the researchers, the main characters are more than twice as likely to be killed off as those in adult films.
Violence and horror lurk in everything from Snow White, Disney’s first animated film from 1937, to last year’s Frozen, the studio’s most successful movie. They are, say the researchers from University College London and the University of Ottawa, “rife with death and destruction”. It is not only Disney: animations such as Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life are also “hotbeds of murder and mayhem” that could cause long-lasting trauma and damage to children, the study claims.
Cartoon deaths may be grisly and sad, but causing long-lasting trauma? Come off it. Modern animation may be in 3D and the best it’s ever been, but even a four-year-old can tell the difference between a cartoon and real footage.
Terrifying children's movies
Terrifying children's movies
1/10 Watership Down, 1978
Who knew that a film about fluffy little bunnies could be so darn horrifying? If the sound of Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes” sends shivers down your spine then chances are you were exposed prematurely to the Martin Rosen animation in which psychic rabbit Fiver sees his warren filled with blood and dead cottontails. As if escaping from Hrududus, Efrafans and dogs weren’t enough, the only female to avoid the underground hell envisioned by Fiver is killed by a hawk. The nightmarish bunnies with blood running out of their eyeballs, noses and mouths are enough to send one running for the nearest zombie movie. Much more inviting, thanks.
2/10 Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988
Dear old Bob Hoskins’ character looks on horrified as the much-feared judge of Toontown, Judge Doom, quite literally meets his namesake as he is crushed by a steam roller agonisingly slowly, limbs flailing. As if this alleged kids’ film weren’t pushing the boundaries enough there, the flattened Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) stands up like a ghastly approximation of Flat Stanley, re-inflates himself using helium, and then turns his hellish visage (complete with bright red, juddering eyeballs) to address the audience in a terrifying cartoon squeak (we’re not sure if it was the helium, or not). *Shudder*
3/10 My Girl, 1991
This otherwise innocuous-looking film devoid of haunted houses, scary witches or anything other than all-American kids looking squeaky clean and very cute is scary for two reasons. Firstly, Thomas J (Macaulay Culkin) dies. He actually dies! Off-screen and in the most traumatically surprising of manners – as a result of bee stings. Secondly, for the number of dead bodies that are in full view. It isn’t just Vada creeping into her undertaker father’s basement to look at a cadaver. She (a small child) actually gets to see Thomas J dead in his coffin, offering the opportunity for her to cry “Where are his glasses! He needs his glasses, he can’t see without his glasses!” Terrifying in that is impossible to stop crying while watching.
4/10 The NeverEnding Story, 1984
No, the scariest thing about this film is not its catchy theme tune. Although you will be humming it for some time. This is a dark, dark, dark, dark, dark tale involving a nemesis described quite simply as “the nothing”. What could be more disturbing than a foe that has neither form nor motive and leaves simply emptiness in it’s wake? Particularly chilling is the moment our hero Atreyu loses his beloved horse Artax when he is swallowed by the bog of despair. Deep. His raggedy-voiced cries of “Atreyu!! Aaaaattttreeeeyyyuuuu!” will haunt you for some time.
5/10 Dumbo, 1941
One of the more remarkable things about Dumbo is that the film predates widespread psychedelic drug use. But the drunken baby elephant who sees pink elephants on parade (not to mention the severed head of a very dubious-looking pachyderm) is not the most terrifying element. What sends this reviewer into howls (not an exaggeration) is the cruelty shown to Dumbo’s mum by the circus folk. The strains of “Baby Mine” as the little elephant tries to reach his shackled mother, ending up cradled in her trunk through the bars, gets me every time. OK, so it might not be a fright fest, but who wouldn’t cower at the sight of their mother in chains. Now, where did I put those tissues?
6/10 The Wizard of Oz, 1939
“I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog, too!” If you think that’s the most frightening part of this story then you’re wrong. It isn’t the old hag at the beginning/Wicked Witch who should strike fear into your heart (although she does look a little green around the gills). No, it’s the crazy flying monkeys that look like a cross between a Planet of the Apes ape and Tommy Cooper (OK, that’s a bit unfair, but the monkeys do wear a Fez). That and the implicit knowledge that a house might fall on you at any time.
7/10 Return to Oz, 1985
If the original journey to Oz was worrying childhood cinema, the Eighties sequel bats the crazy into another league. Not only is poor Dorothy subjected to electroshock therapy in a mental asylum, she’s also chased by half-man-half-trolley monsters called the Wheelers and very narrowly avoids becoming part of evil Princess Mombi‘s gallery of sentient disembodied heads. What with auntie Em subjecting poor Dotty to heinous treatment for suspected paranoid delusions, we definitely, definitely are not in Kansas anymore.
8/10 Labyrinth, 1986
“Everything that you wanted, I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous?" So speaks David Bowie in his legendary turn as the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s puppet-tastic fantasy movies. As if surly New Romantic teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) were not disturbingly heartless enough as a babysitter, the scariest moment comes when her stolen baby brother crawls on the ceiling (Is this where Danny Boyle got the inspiration for that scene in Trainspotting?). The Muppet relations might have looked cute and comical at times, but when Sarah finds herself in a magical mocked-up version of her own stuffed toy filled room, the creeps begin to outweigh the laughs.
9/10 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968
If the rest of the movie is truly scrumptious, the existence of the child catcher in this Dick Van Dyke classic is all the more horrifying. Played by professional ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, the character is all the more disturbing for his light-footedness. With his long, pointed noise and exaggeratedly camp manner he is employed by the Baron and Baroness to catch and imprison children on the streets of Vulgaria. Created by the films screenwriter Roald Dahl, the child catcher did not appear in the original Ian Fleming book. He is so sinister I used to dive behind the sofa whenever his sing song voice and overly sniffly nose appeared onscreen.
10/10 Bambi, 1942
“I made it mother! Mother?! Mother!” Leave it to Disney to casually teach your children about death why dontcha. Even as an adult the subtle bang of the rifle that put paid to Bambi’s mama strikes true. Possibly the fluffiest packaging for any of the horrors discussed in this piece, no sooner has Bambi’s mum been despatched then we see our cute little deer and his rabbit friend thumper transformed from sing song sweetness to gravelly-voiced maturity. Death, puberty, twitterpating. You name it, it was terrifying.
When it comes to the deaths of animals in animations, these are actually sanitised versions of what happens in nature. So in Finding Nemo, the mother is eaten by a barracuda, but the little clownfish survives far worse encounters which would kill him off in the real ocean.
I can’t remember A Bug’s Life but I imagine at some point a tiny creature is squashed by a bigger creature. Bambi’s mother is shot by a hunter, but the reality would be worse. And these animals are talking, for crying out loud – it just isn’t real. As Chandler said in Friends, when he was asked by Joey whether he cried when Bambi’s mother was shot: “Yes, it was so sad when the guy stopped drawing the deer.”
When it comes to the portrayal of princesses, ice queens and wicked stepmothers, this is just plain obvious fantasy. Just like in Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairytales, wicked stepmothers rampage through kingdoms like there’s no tomorrow before meeting their sticky ends.
Snow White – in the original fairytale and the Disney movie – is killed by poison in an apple but is then brought back to life, in her glass coffin, by a handsome prince. When Elsa in Frozen stamps her foot on the ground she transforms it into a frozen lake, and later she creates an entire palace out of ice just with the point of her index finger. Does my daughter really think this is what humans can do? No. Children are not stupid. They can tell the difference between a real person and a princess with overly large eyes and a pet snowman who can remove his own head.
The obvious flaw in the UCL research is that this was a study of the content of films over 70 years, but with no clinical analysis of their long-lasting effect on children. If they had, they would have found no causal link – after nearly three-quarters of a century and millions of cinema-goers, it is obvious that there is no damage done, otherwise several generations would be traumatised.
So I wonder what the point of this work was, other than to state the bleeding obvious, which is basically that wicked stepmothers in fairytales are evil. The researchers are perhaps suggesting that Disney and other animators should stop killing off their main characters, which would be a disappointing development – introducing not only Hollywood endings but beginnings and middles to every film version of a fairytale.
Because there is a serious point here: the fairytale stories that we tell our children – through books and films – are crammed with evil witches, heroic princes and princesses and grisly deaths because they inspire imagination and intrigue in the reader and viewer. These stories also tell children hard and fast rules about the real world – the difference between right and wrong, for example – in a way that is exciting and fantastical.
On my daughter’s bookshelf there are two versions of Little Red Riding Hood: one where the big bad wolf gobbles up the grandmother and the girl before the woodcutter cuts the animal open and frees them; the other is a heavily sanitised version where the wolf runs away (not even killed!) after the woodcutter turns up because he has heard screams. My daughter prefers the gorier version because it is more engaging. Does this mean she is going to grow up wanting to go around killing wolves or, based on her other favourite book, pushing witches into ovens in houses made of sweets? Of course not. But the message of both stories, don’t speak to strangers, is vividly hammered home.